24 August 2001

Potato demo hosts look to EEurope…

Over the next five pages our root harvesting special focuses on potatoes,

with further coverage of potato and sugar beet machinery on p77-80.

Charles Abel sets the ball rolling here with a profile of the farmers hosting

the British Potato 2001 harvesting demo, near Newark, Notts

GROWING crisping potatoes profitably has become so difficult in the UK that the hosts of the BPC Harvesting Demonstration could move their production to Eastern Europe and export the crop back to UK buyers.

Andrew, Michael and Patrick Chennells currently grow 10,000t of quality crisping potatoes from Clay Farm, North Scarle near Lincoln.

But with total production costs approaching £100/t ex-field, rigorous attention to detail in crop management, tight control over all inputs and minimising outgrades all contribute to maintaining a slim margin.

However, severe price pressure is taking its toll. "It is getting to the point where we need a price rise to allow for reinvestment," stresses managing director Michael Chennells.

Indeed there is a concern that current government policy and market conditions leave growers little chance of making a profit. "The industry needs a profit to be sustainable and at the moment we do not seem to be getting that."

The family is already involved with a company farming in central Europe. "If we have to, we will grow there, without the extra legislation and bureaucratic costs piled onto the UK producer, and export the crop back to the UK," says Michael. "We want to carry on farming in the UK, but not at any cost. If circumstances dictate we will go. It is largely up to the government."

In the meantime the farm policy is simple. "We want to produce to our customers specifications, but we dont want to be dictated to. We want to use our skills as producers to grow the crops they ask for," says Michael.

At the same time risks from the processing crop, which accounts for just a small part of the 1800ha (4,500 acres-plus) farming business, must be carefully assessed. "We are not averse to taking on commercial risks, provided the reward more than covers the extra costs of the risk in question.

"Traditionally we sold Record ex-field, the price was alright and there was very little risk," recalls Michael. "Then the market changed. We found we were offered contracts to grow potatoes that were then stored by a third party at our risk, yet have no control over that risk. This was totally unacceptable."

The decision was stark – drop the crop, for which they had built up a formidable reputation, virtually since crisping was invented, or invest in temperature controlled storage.

The stores were built, control of the crop was brought in-house and production efficiency has been fine-tuned ever since.

Another area which helps to make the crop viable is to grow a small percentage for the open market each year. "It adds to risk, but improves returns," says Michael. "Not only can we take advantage of better prices, but we can also grow non-contracted crops cheaper. Seed costs £70/t instead of £270/t, for example."

The drive to grow exactly what buyers want starts with split-graded, quality checked seed, planted at exactly the right rate, stresses operations director Patrick. "That cuts costs, because seed goes further, and boosts yield and quality.

"We listen to what the experts say on seed rates, but at the end of the day we know from experience what rates suit individual fields and specific conditions," says Patrick.

Burn-down timing and efficiency at the other end of the growing season are equally important. Crops are checked regularly with the buyer and farm quality control staff to maximise output in the crucial 72-110 tubers/10kg range.

Although sulphuric acid is most effective, cost and ease of application mean Harvest (glufosinate-ammonium) are preferred. "Acid does the best job, but costs more and you are relying on a contractor so you may not get the job done on the exact day wanted," says Patrick. "Good burn down a day too late is not as good as using a spray-on product at exactly the right timing."

Consultancy, including Mark Taplin from Farmacy, is bought in when needed, but most of the management is done in-house. "It is like any other input. We buy what we need from the best supplier for the situation and only when we need it."

All crops are quality checked into store, samples being taken for each 24t batch as soon as crop starts coming off the grading line. "We can then adjust grading so we put exactly the spec we want into store," says Michael.

The 24t batch approach also means production director Andrew can select crop for out-loading to meet the needs of different buyers.

For the future the Chennells are looking for higher yielding varieties than stalwart Saturna. "The demo crop of Courage, which we are growing for Higgins for KP and Golden Wonder, looks promising," notes Michael. "The crispers seem to like it and it has greater yield potential, perhaps 20t/acre-plus. The real test will be what it puts in the bank."

New technology is also helping improve productivity, the business having been involved with the development of disease prediction software since its inception, in conjunction with DMA. It also has its own weather station.

"The first year we tried the system was a bad blight year," explains Patrick. "If we had done what it said we would not have had the problems we did, so the next year we relied on it solely. It can pile the pressure onto the sprayer during high pressure periods, but if you can get round it does generally seem to save money through less applications over the season." &#42

Crisping potato production is on a knife-edge in the UK, say BPCdemo hosts Michael (right) and Patrick Chennells. Growing in Eastern Europe and shipping produce back to the UKis not out of the question, they say.

BRITISH POTATO 2001

When Tue 4th + Wed 5th September.

Where Newark & Notts Showground, Newark, Notts.

Times 9am-5.30pm.

Entry £10 a person.

Demo 21ha crop of Courage crisping potatoes on irrigated gravel land to be flailed day before and harvested by the latest 2-row, 4-row and self-propelled harvesters from Amac, DeWulf, Grimme, Kverneland, Netago Reekie, Richard Pearson and Standen. Courage is a variety developed by Higgins Group. The crop is destined for KP and Golden Wonder.

Grading Three grading lines from Haith Tickhill, RJ Herbert Engineering and Tong Engineering will handle hundreds of tonnes of crop. Plus bagging, handling, forklift and loading equipment in action.

Exhibition 180 exhibitors including machinery, equipment, seed and agronomy companies, plus researchers, demonstrating products, services and latest advice in 100,000sq ft of indoor and outdoor exhibition space on the Newark showground. A quarter of the exhibitors are new to a BPC event.

Sponsors BASF, Higgins Group and Greenvale AP, plus McCain Foods, Grimme, Merlo and Truckmasters.

Foot-and-mouth Biosecurity adviser for the event is Sorex.

Reception A 1-hour industry reception will be held on the show site at 5.30pm on Sept 4, providing an informal opportunity for networking. Open to all, but strictly ticket only – call 01952-299985 for details.

More info Contact event organiser British Potato 2001, a subsidiary of Town & Country Events, on 01952-299985 and bp2001@tccgroup.co.uk